The more I think about having to review this movie, the more I realize it would be remarkably difficult to describe the basic plot without revealing things that border on spoiler territory. So please know I am trying, but I am likely to fail at a totally spoiler-free review.
So, let that be your SPOILER WARNING before we dive into the review.
Taking place 30 years after its predecessor, Blade Runner: 2049 finds a world still inhabited by replicants, androids once created as slave labor, that have led multiple revolutions. Blade Runners are special detectives hired by the LAPD, whose sole job is to “retire” remaining replicants from the 2020s. Ryan Gosling’s K, one of the titular blade runners, hunts down evidence of a child of significant parentage.
Let’s start with the fact that there is little reason for this movie to even exist. The original film, an adaptation of a novel by Philip K. Dick, was not a box office success, and, outside of some question as to the literal humanity of its lead character (Harrison Ford’s Deckard), the film’s ending did not lead to an obvious sequel plot. Despite its lack of box office success, the film is one of the most celebrated science-fiction movies of all time, both for its visuals and its philosophical debate over the definition of humanity. All this to say, screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning to the franchise after 35 years) and Michael Green (whose year has included assisting in running Starz’s American Gods, writing Logan, and adapting Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. He also has a story by credit for Alien: Covenant but we don’t need that kind of negativity in our lives), alongside director Denis Villeneuve (who directed my favorite movie of 2016) had a tall order ahead of them, and were given a hefty budget ($150 million) to pull it off.
Even though the box office is not showing it, Fancher, Green, Villeneuve, and just about everyone else around them pulled off this incredible feat. Villeneuve is able to work with his impressive cast, from top-billed Gosling and Ford to scene-stealing performances from the likes of Lennie James and Ana de Armas, to create distinct characters that fit right into Dick’s universe (I’ll take extra time to celebrate some of these performances a bit later). Perhaps more impressively, Fancher and Green are able to create a film that acts as a follow-up to a sci-fi classic, while still standing alone as its own story (although helpful in appreciating the film, the original is not necessarily essential viewing).
That’s not to say that this film’s story and characters are perfectly executed. A major plot point reminded me a bit too much of the moment where I realized that Dark Knight Rises was about to stumble to the finish line. I will say that your mileage may vary on this point, as none of my friends who saw the movie before me knew what I was talking about when I mentioned this. Although the reveal does allow extra significance to be added to a decision that Gosling’s K makes later in the film, as well as subverts a troubling trope, I don’t know if these are enough to make up for what I interpreted as a very shakily handled reveal.
Before I celebrate the work of some of the other actors, I do want to touch on characters that failed their actors. Robin Wright and Mackenzie Davis are both very strong performers. Wright has been giving consistently strong performances since her debut in The Princess Bride, but this year, with this and House of Cards (even Wonder Woman, to a degree), she has not been given nearly enough to work with in order for her talent to be fully utilized. Her character here is basically a bland police chief who is there to scold or celebrate Gosling’s blade runner. If she weren’t Robin Wright, I doubt I would remember anything about this character. Davis is a relative newcomer, coming on the scene with AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, and giving memorable performances in Ridley Scott’s The Martian and the beautiful Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.” Here she is literally an object during a visually striking scene of foreplay, with a little bit of rebel hastily thrown in around the time of the Dark Knight Rises reveal. I wish I had more positive to say about an actress who played a major role in one of my favorite pieces of art of 2016, but I simply don’t. At least we’ll always have “San Junipero.”
Enough negativity, y’all. I really loved this movie and most of its performances. Ryan Gosling is one of smartest actors that we have right now, at least as it pertains to the films he is selecting. He makes very few mistakes on this front, and his outright talent is on full display here. K is predominantly a very stoic character, which Gosling pulls of well, but his performance really stands out when he is confronted with life-altering news. From a close-up, where we are able to watch his understanding of his life shatter, to a visceral and emotional reaction to receiving further confirmation of the world-altering news, Gosling is able to take his character from apathetic to emotionally wrecked remarkably well. His performance alongside Ana de Armas, whose Joi is realistically the only fully realized female character in this movie, is one of the standout components of the film. de Armas, another relative newcomer, especially to English-language films, is able to bring a significant amount of heart and emotion to a character who is a projected image, intended to be companionship for lonely men. The character is primarily intended as a warning sign of what technology can do to human romantic relationships, similar to 2013’s Her and 2015’s Ex Machina, and, like Scarlet Johansson and Alicia Vikander in their films, de Armas’s beautiful performance is able to stand out, despite being surrounded by some of the most talented actors of our day.
These two performances barely scratch the surface on the strong performances in this movie. Needlessly method tactics aside, Jared Leto is able to lift a rather bland villain (Niander Wallace) to great heights. Lennie James took time off from acting circles around his Walking Dead castmates to give a scene-stealing performance as the head of a rather questionably run orphanage. I was ecstatic to see Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi for what felt like the first time since his incredible performance in 2013’s Captain Phillips, even if for only a brief moment or two (he never shares the screen with Jared Leto, the man who beat him at the Oscars that year). Harrison Ford even seems excited to be back, even if he is wearing what appears to be his street clothes, instead of the futuristic garb of the rest of the cast. Also, he actually punched Ryan Gosling at one point while filming a fight scene. Gosling told the story of that day on set to GQ and it’s basically peak Harrison Ford. Below is the moment after Ford made contact with Gosling’s face.
This film is a technical masterpiece as well. As you can get a very small idea of above, the colors and lighting in this movie are gorgeous. Roger Deakins has been doing cinematography work for over 40 years, and he is simply one of the best in the business. The way he captures the lighting and reflections of waters inside of Niander Wallace’s company creates some of the most striking imagery I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, and the way he uses lighting both outside and inside Deckard’s Las Vegas hideout is nothing short of remarkable. For a much more in-depth look at why this is probably Deakins’s best work (which really is saying something), check out this article from Indie Wire. They also sample some excellent examples of his work, but I will include two of my favorites below.
The visual effects, particularly when they come to Joi, stand out in this film as well. Being a projected, 3-D image, Joi is somehow able to look entirely solid and paper-thin at the same time. Moments that stand out include watching fluorescent lights in the background shining through de Armas’s body as well as watching as rain creates glitches within the image. The most striking visual effects scene is the foreplay scene mentioned above as de Armas’s projected image merges and syncs with Davis’s truly physical body. As the rest of the scene plays out, the two women’s faces and physical features merge and interact in a way that I have never really seen in a movie before, and it happens so smoothly that it never feels outside of the realm of possibility. Discomfort and (intentional) objectification aside, this scene is a visual marvel.
The score is credited to Benjamin Wallfisch (who did It) and Hans Zimmer (who I’ve seen live and who did Dunkirk). The music here is strong, feeling otherworldly, futuristic and strange. It’s an appropriate follow-up to Vangelis’ work on the original film. I said that Wallfisch and Zimmer were credited because Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Jóhann Jóhannsson was originally credited on this film, but was removed/left in September of this year. After hearing his striking work in Arrival, I wish he could have stuck around. Villeneuve has said that he wanted the score to sound closer to Vangelis’s work in the original film (mission accomplished), but I wish they had done something different instead. Arrival‘s score is a predominant reason that movie is my favorite from last year, as it exquisitely built up the tension and feelings of discomfort the film demanded, and I would have much preferred to hear what he had created for this, instead of something that was meant to act as a clone of the original film’s score. The added fact that Jóhannsson’s representatives have brought up the film’s Non-Disclosure Agreement when discussing his departure leaves an even worse taste in my mouth when I think about this film’s score.
I just love this picture. I guess Ford could be my love for this film and Gosling is me? I don’t know. Don’t question it. Just know you live in a world where Harrison Ford punched Ryan Gosling in the face.
References Blade Runner franchise box offices http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=bladerunner.htm Hampton Fancher's IMDb http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0266684/ Michael Green's IMDb http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0338169/ Ana de Armas IMDbhttp://www.imdb.com/name/nm1869101/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t6 IMDb Page for 2014 Oscars http://www.imdb.com/event/ev0000003/2014?ref_=nmawd_awd_1 Blade Runner 2049 IMDb http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1856101/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast Blade Runner IMDb http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083658/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm Jóhannsoon's Departure https://pitchfork.com/news/johann-johannsson-no-longer-involved-with-blade-runner-2049-report/ Villeneuve Discusses Jóhannsoon's Departure http://collider.com/blade-runner-2049-composer-replacement-explained-johann-johannsson/#images Photo Credits San Junipero https://68.media.tumblr.com/fdb8d9bfbabef2f23417e0ceba522ca0/tumblr_ofimm9sGet1vgx53mo4_500.gif Ford Punching Gosling http://static6.businessinsider.com/image/59d39645c68d7b701c8b6954-480/gosling-ford.jpg Inside Vegas http://www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/5.png?w=780 Outside the City http://www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/head-photo-e1494267811280.png?w=780